As a family lawyer, I have been asked this question more than once, and not only from potential clients, or former clients, but also from dear friends of mine. Not every pair of love birds make it down the aisle to say their “I do’s.” Sometimes, a wedding is called off by one party to the shock and dismay of the other. Sometimes, it is a joint decision painstakingly made together. In any event, it is hoped that the decision to pull the plug on the wedding is made well before the final deposits were paid or the invitations were sealed and placed in the mail. However, sometimes cold feet occurs at the very last minute and a wedding is even called off only days (and in some situations, only hours) before the ceremony. After the tears are shed, words are exchanged, and the numerous telephone calls are made to inform the officiant, the vendors and the guests that the wedding will not be proceeding as planned, the inevitable question is asked: WHO GETS THE ENGAGEMENT RING?
The answer to this question varies from state to state. You must research this issue in your particular jurisdiction in your individual state to confirm the answer. In the State of New Jersey, as in many other states (but not all), an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift. It was given by one party to the other as a symbolic gesture of the promise or the pledge to get married. In New Jersey, the engagement ring retains the status of a conditional gift until the wedding is official. It does not matter who breaks the promise of the engagement (or the condition) to be married. The reason why the wedding is called off does not matter nor does any fault of either party come into play. According to New Jersey case law, if a wedding is called off by either party prior to the solemnization of their vows at the formally licensed ceremony for any reason, the engagement ring is returned to the party who “popped the question.” The ring is returned to the party who proposed with the ring REGARDLESS of which party called off the actual wedding ceremony. While it may seem unfair if the party who proposed with the ring is the same party who calls off the wedding, and the ring is still returned to that party, but the fact remains that the condition of marriage was not satisfied. Thus, the conditional gift follows. But what happens if the ring was “gifted” on a holiday such as Valentine’s Day?
Also, unlike the situation when the wedding ceremony has occurred and vows were exchanged, the promise to get married has been satisfied. If the marriage is then subsequently terminated by either party, the engagement ring is no longer deemed a conditional gift (as the condition was satisfied) and the ring becomes the personal property of the party who said “yes.” There is also an argument to be made that an engagement ring which is a family heirloom should be returned, but perhaps at a cost.
For a further explanation of the New Jersey’s Court’s reasoning on the engagement ring issue, please review Philip Aronow v. Elizabeth Silver, 223 N.J. Super. 344 (Ch. Div. 1987); and Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510 (App. Div. 1990).